Editor’s Note: This profile is part of a new series, “Her Perspective,” on the experiences of Black women business owners.
Ed tech founders loudly talk the talk on closing the digital divide — Lisa Love is walking the walk.
She’s the co-founder of Tanoshi, a Silicon Valley-based business launched in 2016 that makes and sells computers for children ages 6 to 12. Each one comes loaded with educational apps, Google Suite, cameras and a detachable touchscreen and keyboard — and costs $199, far less than the $700 consumers paid on average for computers in 2019.
That’s by design. Tanoshi’s primary objective is to address “inequity problems within school systems” by making it easier for children to access the necessary tools for success, regardless of race or class, Love says.
The company was recently featured on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” where it garnered a $500,000 deal. It has also won praise in publications like Forbes and Mashable, and counts retailers like Amazon and eBay as partners.
Tanoshi currently has five full-time employees and four board members — a diverse crew, Love adds proudly, making it stand out in a rather white industry. Still, the tech world’s never-changing demographics led Love to seek out accelerator programs designed for Black- and women-owned businesses to find founders and techies who looked like her. She felt inclined to “gravitate to your own” to deal with the isolation.
She notes, “That’s helped me along the way — that I’m not alone in this, that I have a community where we can bounce ideas off each other.”
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Bridging Digital Divides
Growing up, Love recalls her mother’s tireless work as an educator in south central Los Angeles, where she taught for 50 years. “I saw the inequities, how she had to use her own time and money to develop materials and curriculum that would resonate with her students,” many of whom came from low-income families, she says.
Love was frustrated for her mother’s plight, but also inspired by her work. “Seeing her passion, and the effort she took to make sure all kids had a fair chance to succeed and learn in an environment that was conducive to them [doing so], was ingrained in me,” she says.
Before launching Tanoshi, Love spent decades as a growth and marketing executive for major brands such as Del Monte Foods and Wine.com. In that time, she learned firsthand about the inequities Black people, and especially Black women, face in the business world. Those roadblocks are reflected in the numbers: As of 2018, just 5 percent of American executives were Black, despite comprising 13 percent of the population. Women are similarly poorly represented in the nation’s C-suites.
It was a large part of her decision to leave the big-business world behind. “It was so apparent that, because I was a Black woman, I was being scrutinized,” she says, recalling years of being passed over for promotions, forcing her to make “lateral moves, instead of upward ones.” It’s another impediment to success that Black women are statistically far more likely to face — and, Love adds, “it becomes humiliating. You get bitter seeing your colleagues promoted while you’re still” in the same professional place. And at the tops of the companies she worked for, she says she never saw Black executives.
So when she met co-founder Brad Johnston at a pitch competition, both of them working on ways to improve kids’ access to educational tools, she leapt at the chance to lead a startup environment. When the duo, along with fellow co-founders Greg Smith and Josh Traub, launched Tanoshi, Love was excited to help children — and to nudge the needle toward better representation in the tech world, where Love remains an outlier.
Indeed, Love relishes the chance to lift others up. “The whole education system needs an overhaul,” she says, adding that the status quo creates stark differences for “the haves and the have-nots.”
To spotlight what she means by that, she pointed to a free coding workshop for children that Tanoshi hosts. “We’ll do workshops in Silicon Valley, where the parents are engineers. When we ask the kids who has coded before, about 90 percent raise their hands.” It’s a different story when she runs the class in nearby Oakland: “Those kids barely have a computer at home.”
The problem extends well beyond Love’s classes, of course. The “digital divide” separating underprivileged families from technology like computers and internet access — now necessities — doesn’t just put children from these homes behind the curve on the latest tools and trends. It can impact future education, career and income prospects, especially for people of color, who are already hamstrung by the realities of systemic racism.
So Love’s goal is to help out “those that might not have the resources to excel, even if it’s just on a confidence level.” She’s hopeful that, even just by showing up as a Black female tech executive, “I’m letting them know that you can be an engineer. You can be a mathematician.”
Diversifying Tomorrow’s Leadership
When the coronavirus crisis gripped the nation, schools quickly closed — an unintended boon for Love’s company. “Sales surged,” Love says — by 166 percent, she adds, in comparison to Tanoshi’s pre-Covid-19 months. “Parents needed a computer for their children while they were distance learning.” In fact, they’ve struggled to keep up with demand since the end of March, and have run out of stock entirely in 3 separate months this year.
Still, “it’s heart-wrenching for kids, especially low-income kids who just don’t have computers at home,” she adds. Researchers have found that, indeed, school closures due to Covid-19 have had direct, negative impacts on the world’s most vulnerable children — from reducing reinforcement of essential skills like reading to limiting or eliminating access to midday meals.
Love partnered with nonprofit Be the Change and launched a GoFundMe campaign to get more laptops into students’ hands. And in an attempt to speak directly to kids without internet access, Tanoshi’s newest product, due out this fall, will come loaded with apps that don’t require WiFi to work. “Moving forward, we’re going to make it mandatory that any third-party app” be able to operate offline. And schools will be able to buy the new computers directly, saving families money.
She feels some hope for the future those children will inhabit as she watches Black Lives Matter protests continue around the globe. “I do believe [George Floyd’s murder by police officers] sparked something,” Love says. As a longtime Los Angeles resident, “I remember [the beating of] Rodney King [by police officers],” and the protests that followed in the early 90s. But the response had “always been more centralized — it’s Blacks who were outraged,” she says. “Now, it’s not just the U.S., but the whole world.”
From inside the tech world, she saw companies vowing to improve their diversity statistics at all levels — but thinks it may be a bid to tap into the $1.4 trillion in spending power Black people offer. Still, she points out, everyone would benefit. “If you want to sell your products and services to the Black community, then you need Blacks within your organization who can speak to [us] … in a way that’s authentic.”
As for whether the industry will notably improve on this while the movement carries on? “Only time will tell. Some studies may show incremental improvements, she notes, but “it doesn’t feel like it’s getting better.” Either way, she hopes to effect some of that change from the inside — because, she adds, it “needs to happen now.”
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Katrina Thompkins opened her e-commerce store, K’dara CBD, just as the coronavirus crisis was starting to take hold in the U.S.